Besides the economy, you might also be concerned about our sovereignty. After all, the media regularly tell us how Brussels is overriding British laws and taking away our democratic power. But this simply isn’t the case. We have representatives in the European Parliament, and we – as the UK – have as much influence and authority within that body as any other nation. (Informally, we have considerably more than we strictly should: we’ve been an active and constructive participant in the EU since its inception, and that’s earned us a disproportionately loud voice.)
In not very long at all, a referendum is coming up. It’s a biggie: the question at hand is going to be (whatever the exact wording on the form) whether the UK should remain as part of the EU.
Up front: I believe, very strongly, that we should stay in. I make no bones about it, even though on face value it does put me on the same side of a question as David Cameron – and I assure you that’s not a comfortable place for me to be.
There are lots of good, sound arguments to be made as to why we should remain in. Good economic reasons, for example. The largely Eurosceptic media tells us that EU membership costs the British people far more than we get out of it. In fact, if we take a broad view, the opposite is the case. Between grants, business and trade revenue, and the competition of the European trading market, every £100 of UK money we send to the EU brings almost ten times that back to Britain. Fully half our exports go to Europe. Goods prices are lower not only thanks to competition inside the EU but through the combined bargaining power of Europe as a trading bloc. And membership does not – contrary to some media claims – prevent the UK from negotiating additional treaties and deals as a single entity. We have, in effect, the best of both worlds as an EU member state.
The single currency is a point of contention for many people. It has advantages and disadvantages, and under normal conditions, use of the euro would help to stabilise states’ economies across the EU. If a Eurozone state had problems, their economy would be supported to some extent by the weight of the EU market as a whole. The stable states can collectively support one or two struggling without noticeable impact on their own citizens.
That’s under normal conditions. We haven’t had normal conditions recently. In a global recession we’ve seen that independence from the euro can be an advantage: we were lucky enough to hold sterling relatively (if not objectively) stable while the euro wobbled severely, and Eurosceptics argue that this validates their position: if we’d been in the euro, we’d have suffered all the more.
This may well be true. If we’d been in, we might have had an even harder time. But we weren’t in – and that’s why this argument doesn’t hold water. We are independent of the Eurozone already, and our EU membership doesn’t depend on us joining it. We can retain sterling – and therefore independent control of our currency – for as long as we want, even if we remain in the EU. And if it became economically advantageous to join the euro in the future, we could still do that.
Again, by retaining our membership, we get the best of both worlds.
Some of those who argue for leaving the EU believe that by doing so we can reestablish the UK as a serious world power, and that being free of obligations to Europe will regain us the global respect we used to enjoy. The truth is that leaving the EU will have the opposite effect. To make the best choice for Britain’s future we have to deal with the facts as they are. We have to face the fact that we simply are not the power we were: arguably we haven’t been since the rise of the United States after the Second World War. We have had our turn at empire, and we must accept that. But we are still a power. We are still diplomatically and economically influential, despite our small size and diminished reach. As a senior partner in the European bloc we retain a significant weight on the world stage. If we leave, we will not become more influential, but less. We will become isolated and ultimately sidelined. Trade will pass us by. We will become less relevant, diplomatically and economically, and we will essentially fade away. I don’t mean the country will collapse because of it, but we will become increasingly overlooked by other states, in and out of Europe.
Staying on the subject of sovereignty, although the Eurosceptic media like to portray EU rules as dominating our domestic laws, in fact it’s our own government, and it alone, that determines what British law says and how it’s enforced. Member states are still sovereign over their own territories. When the EU issues a new ruling, member states are obliged to pay heed to it, and take it into account when drafting their own laws – but they still draft their own laws. Even as an EU member, Britain has sole sovereignty over British laws.
This, for example, is why we have that favourite target of media sneering, the Human Rights Act. That Act is not a European law: it’s a British one, constructed by British lawmakers on the foundation of the European Convention on Human Rights – a treaty ratified back in 1950 by 47 nations. The creation of the UK Human Rights Act actually gave Britain greater powers to handle human rights issues in our own courts than we previously had: prior to that, ECHR issues had to be dealt with in Strasbourg, as they will again if we scrap the HRA.
Incidentally, we remain party to the ECHR treaty, and neither leaving the EU or scrapping the HRA would free us from our treaty obligations: it simply means we won’t be able to handle complaints from our own citizens on our own turf, and would once again have to defer to Strasbourg. The only alternative would be to break the treaty, and that is an extremely dangerous diplomatic road to start down.
A key concern for people at the moment is immigration. The media insist that we’re being swamped with foreigners who take British jobs, exploit the NHS and our benefits system, and commit crime. But we can’t remove them or return them home because of either their Human Rights under that pesky (British, remember) Act, or because of their freedom of movement under EU rules.
These are complex issues that I can’t do justice to in a single post, even a ludicrously long one; but it’s worth saying that, first, the numbers coming in are far from unmanageable. They’re not even particularly challenging. You’ll have heard arguments that the economic benefit the UK receives from European migrants is considerable. You may believe that or not. But we are certainly not in any danger of becoming full, or, as the concern is occasionally raised, a minority-white or minority-Christian country. (That last is to say that, as far as the main media concern goes, demographically we are becoming far more secularised than we are islamicised).
We should also bear in mind that European freedom of movement is a two-way street. This means that, if we wish, we could any of us move to live in any other EU state with a minimum of fuss, and take up work when we arrive. Additionally, European standards on healthcare mean that when we travel – when we go to Europe on our holidays – we are granted access to healthcare that, as non-EU citizens, we would have to pay for, assuming we could access it at all.
For all we hear about the numbers coming in, the media tend to play down the numbers going out. Some of these are native Brits taking advantage of the free-movement rules, but others are migrants returning home or moving on. This is happening all the time, and is facilitated by those same shared borders.
The recent flow of people entering Europe through Turkey and Greece is a specific issue. It isn’t a product of our being an EU member state. It’s the result of a very specific event: namely, the civil war in Syria, and the military interventions by foreign powers (not least the UK itself). The media likes to portray these people as ‘migrants’, implying they’ve moved of their own volition. However, their correct status is ‘refugee’: they have been fleeing a devastating war in their home country, and the great majority of those interviewed have said that they ultimately want to go home. We may assume they’re lying, as the media make out. But we are a species that develops very strong attachments to ‘home’, wherever it might be. Is it really so hard to believe that these refugees do, actually, want to go home?
“But why are they coming to Britain, when we’re furthest away from the war?”
The answer to that is simple: because we’re furthest away from the war.
This is an emotive issue. But one thing is certain: our leaving the EU will not stop the flow of these refugees. It will stop when the situation in Syria and surrounding areas stabilises. In the meantime, the vast majority of refugees are not coming here: the UK accounted for less than 0.1% of applications for asylum in Europe in 2015.
As I said, there are lots of sound arguments for remaining in the EU, and few arguments for leaving that don’t fall down when examined closely. There are solid and tangible benefits of membership which we will lose if we decide to go it alone.
But all this ignores something crucial: people’s feelings. As a nation we’ve leaned in recent decades towards making decisions based on feelings and instinct, and I’m not arguing that these aren’t important to people.
I have strong feelings on the EU, too. Those who know me will know that I’m a wishy-washy pacifist type who likes to see people getting along, even in spite of differences. That doesn’t mean I think no-one should ever disagree or object: discussions, debates, and even arguments are healthy and productive things, done right. Friends don’t need to see eye-to-eye on everything. But I hold more hope for friends who argue than enemies who won’t speak. The friends will one day resolve their issues; the enemies won’t.
We don’t have to be the same. We don’t have to agree. We don’t even have to like each other. But if, despite that, we can find common ground and reach agreements and (sometimes, no doubt) compromises, then we can improve things for ourselves and others, and make the world substantially better.
We will do that by breaking barriers down, not by putting more up. The EU is far from a perfect structure. But it offers us benefits that should not be lightly abandoned. We stand to gain far more from being part of, and helping to steer, an improving EU than we will by ditching it now and watching from the outside as it improves without us.
To sum it all up: if someone asks you whether you think we should leave Europe, I’d thoroughly recommend saying ‘No’. (Or ‘Yes’ if they ask if we should stay.)